One image is all you need to get caught in a deluge of hate

By Asma Ali Zain

I came across an image a few weeks ago of a group of veiled women walking in one direction and one of them, apparently breaking the ranks, walking in the opposite direction with a magazine in her hand.

The image stumped me. It was powerful. And that is exactly what I tweeted before all hell broke loose and the tweet went viral.

It’s been tweeted over 4,000 times and has got over 9,000 likes. The tweet garnered 1,077,001 impressions — the number of times the image had been seen.

There were also over 500 comments with 90 per cent of them mocking me for posting something I believe in on my timeline.

For me, the woman represented me, someone who didn’t follow the crowd and found her own way. The image was powerful. Everyone came up with their own meaning. In the end though, the comments seemed to paint a picture of me being against the veil, which is not true.

I believe that someone’s attire is their personal choice and especially when it comes to sensitive topics such as burqah or niqaab. But then that is another debate.

Originally, the image was part of an advertisement campaign by a magazine trying to change perspectives. Interestingly, only a few of those who commented focused on the majority of women heading in one direction while the remaining concentrated on the single woman, without a head cover, walking in the opposite direction. The conversation could easily have been about the majority of  women who were veiled and grouped together, but it was about the lone crusader.

The online conversation that the tweet generated went on for a couple of days until I stopped responding to comments individually and I finally muted the thread. In the days that I was interacting with people online, I was so stressed out, I had sleepless nights due to some of the comments.

It boggled me why I had to explain to total strangers why I thought the way I thought and why I had chosen to share something that showed my viewpoint.

Some of comments amounted to harassment especially on an image that could easily be interpreted in a thousand ways.

There were comments such as, “There is always a bad apple in every bunch,” obviously referring to the woman who decided not to follow the crowd.

Another said, “A disruptive woman wanting to create chaos when everyone else is fine with the path they are following,” again reflected the mindset of someone who thinks that women should follow a certain path and should not be disruptive.

Another comment that was a personal attack said: “This close mindedness of yours would lead to nowhere. Linking attire to illiteracy. Shame on you and your thought process.”

A few sane voices saw what I saw. “This is an image symbolic of standing one and lone against odds, no matter be it a road not taken and has nothing to do with burqa or no burqa.”

Comments from males were downright condescending and suggested women had to follow certain norms and obviously I was not one of those women.

A simple post had turned complicated and it impacted me mentally to the extent that I took a sabbatical from social media for a couple of weeks.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have because I am not ashamed of my thought process but then the pressure was great. It wasn’t a single comment that made me log out the collective hate. I still get at least one retweet and an odd comment every day and I choose to ignore the comment.

Initially, I suffered a couple of sleepless nights probably because despite being active on social media for the better part of the last ten years, I haven’t faced such harsh criticism. And it wasn’t restricted to Twitter, the backlash spilled over to Instagram as well.

The only defence or solution I could think of was taking a sabbatical and yes, I am still off social media

According to Statista, during the July 2017 survey period, 66 percent of survey respondents who have experienced online abuse stated that they felt a feeling of powerlessness in their ability to respond to abuse or harassment online. A total of 63 percent of online harassment victims also reported not being able to sleep well.

At least 58 per cent said that they experienced a feeling of apprehension when thinking about using the internet. Fifty three per cent experienced mood swings. Online trolling also led to low self-esteem, loss of confidence, an inability to concentrate for long periods of time and or focus on daily tasks.

This incident made me think that while social media has increased connectivity, it has also brought out sides people wouldn’t show in real life — especially when it comes to topics such as religion, politics, women and their attire.

It’s easy to hide behind fake profiles and sound hateful and not care about the logic of your argument. Viewpoints that could have been sorted out with simple discussions turn into vitriol without taking into consideration the impact on others. And while all this is done online, the hate spills over into real life.

Asma is an observer of culture. She enjoys sunsets at the Sharjah Corniche

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